Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A letter to end the year

Not mine. Not even from someone I know.


You know how there are books of famous speeches that kids used to be encouraged to mug up, for elocution competitions and such? I once thought (and said in some blogpost I can't find) that it would be a great idea to have an anthology of fictional speeches; that is, speeches characters make in books, but which are fantastic and stirring and all that. I was thinking, mainly, of Andre-Louis Moreau from Scaramouche, but that's just me. Cat said, with perfect truth, that any anthology of fictional speeches that left out Gussy Fink-Nottle's prize-giving speech at Market Snodsbury, did not deserve to exist. How can anyone disagree with that?

Speeches are all very well. Anthologies even more well. (Weller. Something.)

I want to now propose, in the last few hours of this old year, that someone do an anthology of fictional letters. Letters written by characters that, if taken out of their context and placed in the world, would deserve to be in Volume 2 of Letters of Note.

This, naturally, disqualifies epistolary novels, because they're all letters and we're not doing volume two of My Dear Bapu.

But I want to nominate this letter below for that imaginary anthology: it's between Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, in Gaudy Night. Now Dorothy Sayers, like a couple of other writers, is on an emergency shelf of books that are comfort reading. I have recently re-read Have His Carcase, but the big gun, the cannon, is Gaudy Night and it's usually saved for emergencies.

But I found this letter here and as love letters go, it is delicate and gorgeous; as a way to end the year, it is perfect. Here it is in full:
Dear Harriet,

I send in my demand notes with the brutal regularity of the income-tax commissioners; and probably you say when you see the envelopes, ‘Oh, God! I know what this is.’ The only difference is that, some time or other, one has to take notice of the income tax.

Will you marry me?—It’s beginning to look like one of those lines in a farce—merely boring till it’s said often enough; and after that, you get a bigger laugh every time it comes.

I should like to write you the kind of words that burn the paper they are written on—but words like that have a way of being not only unforgettable but unforgivable. You will burn the paper in any case; and I would rather there should be nothing in it that you cannot forget if you want to.
Well, that’s over. Don’t worry about it.

My nephew (whom you seem, by the way, to have stimulated to the most extraordinary diligence) is cheering my exile by dark hints that you are involved in some disagreeable and dangerous job of work at Oxford about which he is in honour-bound to say nothing. I hope he is mistaken. But I know that, if you have put anything in hand, disagreeableness and danger will not turn you back, and God forbid they should. Whatever it is, you have my best wishes for it.

I am not my own master at the moment, and do not know where I shall be sent next or when I shall be back—soon, I trust. In the meantime may I hope to hear from time to time that all is well with you?

Yours, more than my own,

Peter Wimsey

On that letter of note, dear ones, here's wishing you a very happy year ahead.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Hanging by a thread

(It's not spider-silk but it's just as strong, so I don't despair.

Every time I announce a long silence on this blog, I break it almost immediately. This time, while not doing precisely that, I can't let the year go without looking back just once. At least just a little way.)

The year in reading has been amazing. I don't keep a reading diary - maybe I should - but off the top of my head, my stand-outs have been Rahul Soni's translation of Shrikant Verma's Magadh, reading and re-reading Sundara Ramaswamy, getting annoyed with Kalidasa in Iowa City, among other things.

But there's a book for every phase in one's life and while it was all Book of Disquiet five years ago and A Lover's Discourse two years ago, this is the year in which Daniil Kharms' Today I Wrote Nothing became my I Ching. What can I say? When I need divination, solace, when I need to bury something in someone else's words, I dive into this one.

Other things I've been reading recently: Miroslav Holub's Intensive Care which is basically some new poems and all his Selected rearranged in strange but informative ways. There are bits of paper sticking out, where I've marked lines and pages and the plan is to write about one book of poetry I've read at some regular interval as yet undecided upon.

When? Who knows. Some time soon, I hope.

Also Tomas Salamun's On the Track of Wild Game which, I don't know, is lik he was trying to be Bukowski, and was disappointing. I should put it away and return to it some other time.

Currently reading: Kazim Ali's translations of Sohrab Sepehri's poetry, The Oasis of Now.

On my Next Up list:

Tsering Wangmo's A Home in Tibet.
Naiyer Masud's Occult
Nirmal Verma's Days of Longing & The Red Tin Roof
Forugh Farrokhzad's Sin (in a less than satisfactory translation by Sholeh Wolpe, I already know this, but Farrokhzad has been the guardian angel of my recent writing, so it must be forgiven)
Kazim Ali's Skyward
M. Nourbese Philip's Zong!

This last is a book I have long wanted and when Kazim just gave me his copy of it, I almost swooned with gratitude. It deserves close and careful reading and extensive, maybe even running, commentary so I will definitely be writing about it, if not here then somewhere.

So that's the reading year, both gone by and coming up. It's not a blow by blow account - god! why would I do that to you guys? but it's some kind of highlight.


I haven't watched and don't plan to watch The Desolation of Smaug. I feel the shorter and more entertaining gifs on tumblrs around the world are enough. And, Jennifer Lawrence notwithstanding, Hunger Games does nothing for me.

The Sherlock mini thingie yesterday! Did y'all see it? The hair, oh gawd! So terrible! I predict an awful season, but I will watch it anyway.

What will make me both happier and weepier, will be this evening's Doctor Who, in which Peter Capaldi says hello and Matt Smith says goodbye.

All this seems to indicate that I watch more TV than films and this is true. The last film I remember watching is Four Lions which is funny and sad and problematic and in which it is proved that Brit Pakistanis can outswear Malcolm Tucker.

Other films in recent times included the loooong, strange and strangely fun film Kin Dza Dza! There was the harrowing Act of Killing and the epic-but-went-by-in-no-time Jai Bhim Comrade. And oh yes! - there was Recollections of the Yellow House and Offside, which were easier because more familiar types of filmmaking, without asking too much of the viewer. I regret to say I didn't finish watching 12 Storeys, which I found unrelentingly bleak; but now I wish I hadn't skipped it.


Music, I dunno. I said nasty things about whiny midwestern American singers who hide their faces behind their long beautiful hair and thus might have offended a friend. There was a lot of salsa music at the IWP, as well as lots of belly-dancing.

I mean, I listened to all the big releases and all - Kanye, Beyonce, Daft Punk (that was this year, wasn't it?) but the thing that really got me was a mixtape of tango that Kaash put up somewhere. It had 'Tango Apasionado' from Happy Together on it, so no more words necessary.


I cannot talk about the people. They have been the most important.


I am trepidatious about the new year. If I've had a good one - and I have - it must follow that the universe has a mega-balancing k.o punch in store for me, right? Right? Therefore I am nervous. I feel like I'm being set-up and I want to finish the year in hiding and/or hibernation so that I can fly under the radar and make myself small and invisible until it becomes necessary to show myself.

But that's just me. I hope the new year will be good to all of you.

See you on the other side.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Spaniard Was Here

Yes, I know it's been ages (and ages) but I'm not sure what to say about that. Iowa happened, then Chicago, DC and New York and then I came back.

And I haven't felt like blogging, that's what. Not sure things are going to change around here. This silence, absence, whatever - it's not a slump. I feel energised, actually. But I also feel I should be pouring that energy into other stuff.

In other words, life is elsewhere.

Of course, going by my past record, I need only announce this in order to want to blog the heck out of the remaining few weeks of this year. We shall see, but don't hold your breath.

I leave you with a photo.

BANKSY WAS HERE. November 2013.
That was where the Bansky truck thing was.

Consider this a portrait of the space he occupied.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

South Asia Calling

These days, when I cross roads, I scurry across them in case cars won't stop.
I see Volvos and Hyundais everywhere.
I look for drivers on the right instead of the left.
I see parking signs that look like timid imitations of those back home.

There's a crowd outside a building? Of course I want to join it to see what's happening.
Then from a few weeks ago, I remember a door we passed by on the way to Snug Harbour in NOLA.

Asia is calling. It's time to go home.

Monday, October 28, 2013

'just a kid fascinated by ideas'

On Douglas Hofstadter and how he's been marginalised by the 'AI' community, this piece by James Somers.

And what a kid he must have been.

Douglas R. Hofstadter was born into a life of the mind the way other kids are born into a life of crime. He grew up in 1950s Stanford, in a house on campus, just south of a neighborhood actually called Professorville. His father, Robert, was a nuclear physicist who would go on to share the 1961 Nobel Prize in Physics; his mother, Nancy, who had a passion for politics, became an advocate for developmentally disabled children and served on the ethics committee of the Agnews Developmental Center, where Molly lived for more than 20 years. In her free time Nancy was, the joke went, a “professional faculty wife”: she transformed the Hofstadters’ living room into a place where a tight-knit community of friends could gather for stimulating conversation and jazz, for “the interpenetration of the sciences and the arts,” Hofstadter told me—an intellectual feast.
Dougie ate it up. He was enamored of his parents’ friends, their strange talk about “the tiniest or gigantic-est things.” (At age 8, he once said, his dream was to become “a zero-mass, spin one-half neutrino.”) He’d hang around the physics department for 4 o’clock tea, “as if I were a little 12-year-old graduate student.” He was curious, insatiable, unboreable—“just a kid fascinated by ideas”—and intense. His intellectual style was, and is, to go on what he calls “binges”: he might practice piano for seven hours a day; he might decide to memorize 1,200 lines of Eugene Onegin. He once spent weeks with a tape recorder teaching himself to speak backwards, so that when he played his garbles in reverse they came out as regular English. For months at a time he’ll immerse himself in idiomatic French or write computer programs to generate nonsensical stories or study more than a dozen proofs of the Pythagorean theorem until he can “see the reason it’s true.” He spends “virtually every day exploring these things,” he says, “unable to not explore. Just totally possessed, totally obsessed, by this kind of stuff.”

The IWP is winding down. We have just about a week left here and then a week of travel before we leave for our respective countries. Amidst packing anxieties (of course) there's the urgency of spending time with people we might not see again for years (or ever) and finishing up everything we promised ourselves we'd accomplish in our time here.

There was snow. On one day. Watching from the fourth floor window, flakes flew. We ran down to watch but by the time they hit the ground, they were falling instead of flying. 

Oh Howard, this is how poetry turns into prose.

There might never be a full recap of the experience, at least not on this blog. All that energy must convert into writing.   

Thursday, October 10, 2013

An Unboastful Reader

In Oberlin, I was given (ok fine; I bought some) many books and I briefly considered wearing everything I took with me so that I could make space for the books I was definitely carrying back.

Reader, I didn't need to. They fit anyway.

When I returned and arranged the books proudly on what is really the top of the TV cabinet but passes for a bookshelf in my room, I briefly considered listing all the books by title, author and even thought I'd link to Amazon or something.

Reader, I didn't want to.

Instead, I took photographs. You know what they say about their worth.

It hardly needs to be said that I'm crowing. How I am going to take this stuff back is a question I'd rather you didn't ask me.

Instead, take a photograph that stands in for a question. That's how many millions it will be worth.

The column on the right, in the first picture, is all library books. Which is why there's no close up of those books.

But look at the others! Just look!


Of course, there must be a cat picture to convey just how self-satisfied I feel. Therefore:

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Later, Gator

I turned my back on being a vegetarian for the four days I was in New Orleans. Basically, this  meant I had shrimp once and oyster twice. The thought of alligator meat, however chicken-like it's rumoured to be, still turns my stomach. I guess I am not a true meat-eater. Huh.


The turn-off into the Barataria Swamp Tour has a sign that says 'PARK & PRESERVE'. I assumed these words were verbs and was rather puzzled by them until I realised that they were being used as nouns. Then it made sense. Or not.


This is a photo post. The words will come later.

I. Another Pichavaram

Pichavaram in another country

Spanish Moss

Eerie Ent

II. Louisiana Story: Oil



III. And Gators (In Captivity & Otherwise)


and then there were four
Marshmallow Gator King

IV. Baby Gator 


I'm travelling again Monday, so more silence is expected from this blog. But soon there will be time, there will be time.

Or so I keep telling myself.

Thursday, October 03, 2013


I'm still wondering whether to do this big blow out breakfast everyone else is doing this morning or not. In a while, we do the bayou tour and we'll be out all day. When we return, I have an hour before a final reading in NO. Not much time to think of food, then.

There's another article to write by Friday, a lecture to prep for and so on. I'm not even sure I am going to even join the big party this evening and still be able to function on Friday.

Things happen anyway. There's this article I wrote before I left for Iowa and it's finally online. It's me watching films, basically and Himal gave me a lot of rope.

I'll see you guys on the other side of New Orleans. Be good because I'm not sure I can be.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

I drew the fool

In New Orleans. Walking back from the Spotted Cat earlier than we'd thought we would, we passed by Jackson Square. Three of us had been trying to figure out when we'd all be free to have a tarot reading. We thought Wednesday.

But walking past the square, there was a lady all set up and free. On the spur of the moment, we decided we'd just have this done right away. One of us (not me) is a champion bargainer and brought the lady down to some ridiculously tiny amount (later a friend said, if you beat a reader down, obviously you're going to get a reading you're not happy with. Well.)

I went second. I don't know what I was expecting. Entertainment, most probably. But it was a frighteningly accurate reading of some aspects of my life that I find hard to explain by the person being a good reader of faces.

Anyway. In the long, complicated spread that it was, I drew The Fool at one point. I am always happy to see him. I forget what he signified in the exact place he was in the spread, but I don't much care.

Solutions to problems are a matter of exercising common sense. It is the problems themselves that need to be set out clearly in order for the solution to begin to seem obvious. I don't know how I feel about the reading.


The post about New Orleans must wait for another day.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Times, temperatures

I steal the title from the lovely Banno's blog. (Somewhere by an abandoned swimming pool, Andrew Scott screams, "That is what people DO, Sherlock!" Writers, maybe; poets, certainly.)

Times, temperatures. I want the days to slow down so they can last and last. You'd think I'd be mediating the whole experience, camera held to my face all the time, wouldn't you? But no. Instead, I sit on the bench by the river, notebook, book and a clutch of pens and stare at the sky and the water. People have been to the Draco Farm for a dose of repraried Mid-West but for me, this is all the rural I need.

Time to read (or, indeed, write) has to be wrested from the day. Our calendars arrive in our mailboxes and under our doors every Sunday and we lurch from meeting to reading to salon to screening. It's all good, but I've read one book since I arrived. Before I left, I was averaging one book every other day.

I have JJ: Some Jottings on interlibrary loan from Chicago. I feel like crowing at the possibility of this; the ability to request something from my room, walk over to pick it up, and all the while some complicated journey has brought this book that is now out of print in India, to me.

And the best part? I get to participate in this semi-academic life without any of the responsibilities that come with it. This is the addiction of residencies: the temporary leave of absence from adulthood, in order to create in as child-like a state as is commensurate with an independent life.

This is why it is completely unsurprising that at the same time as we sit on this same bench talking about whether we have hierarchical notions about what poetry is (the questions remain variations of what they have always been. It is the answers that shift like water), someone is arranging to have cars driven by ex-Writers Workshop writers, take us on a grocery run.

The bench now. It is like a book cover. No, that's not a gratuitous simile like the one in the previous paragraph. Wait. See for yourself.

So: JJ and Red Doc>. It makes for a strange switch of...temperatures? Emotional registers. I have introduced my friend Patricia, from Portugal (why is this still necessary to say? We seem to flaunt our global diversity as if it was its own kind of passport, though to what I'm not yet sure) to Carson. I'd like, equally, to introduce her - and others - to Su Raa, only that kind of transfer seems to happen with less ease.

Kofi Awoonor died in the Nairobi mall seige (what was it? Seige? Shootout? Attack?). I didn't know him or his poetry, but the IWP mentioned that he was at Iowa at some point. It seemed somewhat outrageous that as writers, we - some of us - had a sense of loss when Heaney died but felt nothing about the death of Awoonor. Any man's death diminishes me, but we keep defining 'man' and 'human' and 'woman' in such exclusive terms. At the fiction discussion yesterday (that I butted into, not uninvited, I hasten to add), this led to some minor kerfuffle of opinions.

I am struggling with two things: how to continue to interact outside my comfort zone of hanging out with people with whom I have a lot in common; and how to deal with the frustration of being surrounded by people who know nearly nothing about the writing from my part of the world without becoming an Ancient Mariner about it. (At the same time, I don't demand that other writers give me a synopsis of their literatures; and it's not as if I've read very much - if anything - from some of these countries. Maybe they feel a similar frustration at my apparent lack of curiosity.)

What this amounts to is a state of mind in which I feel off balance a lot of the time. Things appear to run along familiar lines of debate and discussion and then suddenly they don't. Then there's a lot of think about. Every writer's reading and introduction of themselves and their work in class has been a revelation. Who are all these talented people? How did I get to be put ina  hotel with them for 10 weeks?

This is why, when I feel off-balance - as I frequently do - I find myself on the bench. Bench time we call it. We is the smokers, though I don't smoke. But this is where they gather and I, like Clinton, don't inhale; but we sit, we talk, gossip. We're lizards in the mild sunshine. (Yes, km, I'm sorry. I said lizards. This is what happens when you don't answer your phone).

It's time for breakfast, followed by bench time. Later, I will have to gather myself enough in order to finish a paper I've been putting off for the last five days. Today. Absolutely, today. Because Sunday, we leave for New Orleans and I must create the vacuum that can contain those other stories.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Sometimes all it takes is a fragment

Sometimes all it takes is a fragment to lift your mood, your day, your thoughts out of the morass they've been buried in for the last few hours.

" I like people, no love people, who take looking and being looked at this seriously."

I don't even bother to read the rest of it, though everything Subashini writes must be read. (Yes, must. Directive. Il faut).


Writing is practice. I forget how often I need to remind myself. Begin, and the words move past sense to flow. They become well-exercised muscle, a desirable end in itself.

The writers at the IWP this year have, of their own accord, wanted to meet to discuss things, in larger or smaller groups, that interest them or occupy their thoughts. Monday was the first of what is somewhat cheeky-pretentiously called our Salon gatherings.

Shandana Minhas began with a kick-ass presentation about Pakistan. Mark Angeles spoke about samizdat poetry in the Philippines. Patricia Portella wanted to talk about Deleuze and ghost literature (the idea that our 'reality', such as it is, is a fiction in and of itself, constructed of several ghost-written narratives. Personally, I'm nost sure - being unversed in theory - what Deleuze had to do with it, but that's a deficiency in my own reading).

Me, I have spent the last three weeks being on a high of conversation with the writers. But I may have reached a point when I have to ask myself: who do I talk to and about what?

That is to say, do I at any point step out of my conversation comfort zone? Can I talk to people who are not like me, who don't already share certain views and ideas about literature in general and writing in particular?

I suspect not. This is not to say that I don't, or don't want to try. But it's hard. It's hard, even in such a small group, when conversations can take place in ones and twos, to comprehend what place any given writer occupies and what makes them write, and what common ground we share or how to arrive at an understanding of what we don't have in common.

It would take a lifetime.

Maybe this is why I sat with Subashini's words this morning after my coffee, in a room into which the cold is beginning to seep, and thought about what looking seriously at my fellow writers would mean. Not metaphorically, even.

Except in the first couple of days, when we'reactually looking at people and assessing them while trying not to be looked at, we don't look at anyone anymore, once we think we know who they are. Most of the time, when we say we know who people are, we mean we can put a face to a name.

I can't say I've looked at anyone recently. Not seriously. Complacence is superbly easy; unlike writing, it is never unexercised.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Act of Killing

Watched Joshua Oppemheimer's film The Act of Killing last night. I'd recently read something about it before leaving for Iowa; something about how many people who made the film were identified in the titles as only Anonymous. And this is true.

Image from here

I still feel, as I often do after documentaties that cut deep, unable to write coherently about the film. So associative thoughts, rather than proper review, follows:


The film had to have been shot in a linear manner. There is a significant change in the main character(s) over the course of the film that is fundamentally Greek tragedy in its catharsis-seeking structure. There is unspeakable crime (what we'd call war crime, but which terminology one character refuses to acknowledge as applying to him. 'The winners write history,' he says. 'I am a winner. One day we will throw out the Geneva Convention and there will be a Jakarata Convention.'*

So war crimes. And when the filmmakers ask a few of those involved in the hunting down of and killing of communists back in the late 60's, two of the men, Anwar Congo among them, agree to re-enact some of the atrocities they committed. The go looking for actors: women, children. At first the people laugh, as does the audience. But this is massacre, rape, arson and garotting we're talking about. The laughter turns uncomfortable. We feel complicit.

Anwar and his friends are 'gangsters' which the film frequently glosses as meaning 'free men'. Their heroes are other filmic gangsters, heroes of the old Westerns, beacons of machismo. They watch films after selling tickets in black and then go and kill a few commies.

Anwar enacts the garottings. He dances, says he used to dance after. He watches himself in the scene that's just been filmed and remarks, 'I would never have worn white trousers to a killing. I look like I'm going to a picnic.'

As film buffs, Anwar and his friend declare that this film has to be entertaining, otherwise no one will watch. So there are these strange sequences that could have come straight out of a del Toro film or a Herzog. The girls in pink coming out of the mouth of a rusty fish by the seashore, the waterfall - they're pure Fitzcarraldo or Fata Morgana. I felt prescient thinking that, because I found later that Werner Herzog was indeed one of the producers of the film.

There were so many things that made me squirm, remember other films about genocide: Final Solution, Father, Son and Holy War. I thought of Resnais' Night and Fog and the impossibility - the undesirability, even - of re-enactment. I thought of the necessity of remembering while avoiding the pornography of consuming such horror.

But because the filmmakers (and here I credit more than the director, for reasons I will come to soon) chose both a classical approach while undercutting it with the bizarre, the film does not feel at any point like a gratuitous massaging of the conscience. There is remorse and horror at the end, and I briefly wondered if it was necessary. I think it was, it is. It is a genuine loss of self and recovery of conscience to which one possible reponse - I don't know what other there can be - is compassion.

As for the many, many anonymous people who participated in the making of this film - their courage is as remarkable as (I am afraid) it might be futile. The other paramilitary men, those who took part in the filming and then had doubts about how this will look and what it will say about them - they may not know the crew by name, but they know faces and they know how to find out about people and where they live and so on. I wonder what use their witholding of a name is and I wonder what they've had to do to remain under the radar.

Towards the end, after Congo puts himself int he position of the victim and is shattered by the experience, he asks to watch the scene in his home. 'I know what it feels like to be a victim,' he says. 'Did they feel what I felt?' Someone from behind the camera says, 'No. They knew they were being killed. You were just acting in a scene.'

These other filmmakers. The ones whose names stay boldly theirs in the end credits - they can leave. They can watch from elsewhere. They can appear at screenings in other countries. These anonymous people, though, must live where they always have. I wonder what that story is and how it will play out.

*These sentences are not continuous in the film, though they happen in the same scene. They're also slight paraphrases.

Sunday, September 15, 2013


This is a pleasant memory.

This is welcome reality.

It's raining. It's getting chilly.
(I am trying not to pepper this post with exclamation marks, though the heat of it will be welcome).

Hello, fall.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

View (Point of)

Exhausted. There aren't enough hours in the day, there isn't enough sleep in the night.

Yet I feel I'm learning more than I have in the last two years. As if I am being awakened and therefore I long for sleep, for the comfort and familiarity of it.

Defense mechanism. Or automatic knitting machine. It all depends on how you look on it*.

*I need to sleep on it before I can decide.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Pandrogyne: at the Warhol Museum

Veena said to go to the Warhol Museum while in Pittsburgh, so that was the first thing on my agenda the minute I had some free time.

We had the whole of Friday and Saturday morning (sort of) off, so Friday I went off to the Warhol Museum, with my host's museum card. I began, as recommended, on the 7th floor after I was issued statutory warnings about the disturbing nature of the content.

I'd been told the previous evening about Breyer P-orridge and about this current exhibit on at the Museum. I didn't know what to think; I might have already had a slight feeling of scornful queasiness. Surgeries, voluntary or otherwise can still give me heebie-jeebies.

But I went anyway because I'm intrepid like that. The first thing you see as you turn in is a screen with a film running. I waited for the loop to begin again and while I did, I read the basic stuff about Breyer P-Orridge: who they were and what their art was about. When The Pandrogyny Manifesto began again (you can see it in two parts here and here ) I watched it through and felt both moved and very disturbed. To make your entire body - not just the skin or the surface of it - your canvas, to reshape it and be your own creator-in-collaboration seemed like such an extreme expression of both art and love, that I didn't think I could watch any more.

But I went in anyway, and watched the images, the bricolage and the installations. I continued to be disturbed but I also felt stimulated and engaged and in a state of - what shall I call it - receptivity. The collaborations with Warhol's polaroids; the earlier work of Genesis when s/he was in Britain, the sigil to Derek Jarman who'd asked for help on the last film he was making before he died; all these expanded the subject of their art and gave a context to the work of two people who attempted to not just become one person, but to have a third always beside them who was both the sum of their parts and at the same time a new being.

The gods themselves.


All the same, I felt very antsy after the left the 7th floor. I walked dutifully down each floor, caught brief moments with some iconic Warhol stuff. In a room full of his films, I stood in a spot from where I could simultaneously catch Screen Test, Kiss, Blow Job and a film in which a man beats up another one in a bar while people just watch impassively and then the man goes away and another one picks him up as if he was a rag doll and just jerks him around a bit while a girl watches and smiles from screen right.


I'd had enough. I was about to leave but I needed the loo so on one floor I walked towards where I knew the loo should be. But it was the wrong floor and instead of the signs I was looking for, I saw a silver thing peeping out of a room. An attendant desultorily kicked it back into the room. Curious, I went to have a look.

It was called Silver Clouds. I watched it for a moment and the attendant watched me. Finally she said, 'You can go in if you want.'

So I went in. Helium filled balloon drifted around me and I stood right in the centre of the room, as still as I could. Pillow clouds nudged me along, attacked me half-heartedly, rubbed against my ankles like cats wanting to be scratched. One pillow stayed stuck up near the ceiling and I waiting for it to be dislodged like I'd wait for a lava lamp to begin its proper convectional journey from down to up and back again.

I thought about anthropomorphising gas-filled objects. I thought about what kind of morphism P-Orridge had embarked on and what the continuation of the project in light of the death of one of the partners meant for self-hood and otherness.

But mostly, I felt calm. I wanted to feel calm and I wondered why my steady state wants to be undisturbed, especially when the act of disturbing produced so many reflections I didn't have the necessary speed with which to process them.


Finally I visited the museum store and then left for rehearsal*.


*About which more later.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

All! Live! : Live from Pittsburgh, Live from Prarie Lights

Just returned from rehearsal with Oliver Lake, the other musicians and poets (for the Pittsburgh Jazz Poetry Concert tomorrow )and am noth buzzed and exhausted at the same time; anybody with a kid hopped up on sugar will know what I mean, only I'm better behaved than an eight year old, I promise.

This is my period of unrelived but welcome stress. I don't think I've run on adrenalin since...well, less happy times.

So tomorrow evening is the Jazz Poetry Concert (check the website linked above for a livestream at 7.45pm EST); then we leave early in the morning and arrive in Iowa City at around 2pm.

At 4pm, I read at Prarie Lights. This is also livestreamed, if you feel inclined to tune in.

Thing is, I am a nervous wreck. Sleep is a distant dream and I left my poems - both for here and for Prarie Lights - back in my room. I am more than usually scatty these days; what can I tell you?

For instance, I wish I could post photos from the rehearsal this evening, but I can't because I left my phone usb cable behind in Iowa and I didn't have my proper camera with me because I thought I'd be too busy.


*end girlish excitement*

She was amazing and if you want to know how amazing, catch the livestream tomorrow.

Anyway. Links done, photos not done, this is me saying good night and good luck.

(The Jazz Poetry event will be archived, as will the Prarie Lights reading. I think. So catch it whenever.)

Monday, September 02, 2013

Food is where the heart is

A week or so before I was to leave for Iowa, a lot of my mother's veteran families-in-the-US friends asked me if I was going to take pickles, podis and things. I laughed and said I'd be fine. In my head, I thought, I can adapt to the food; I don't need to have sambar and rasam and find the nearest temple for food from home.

I'm still not going to be looking for a temple any time soon, but one week in and it's become clear that all of us are suffering from some sort of food homesickness. We have a microwave, a mini fridge and a coffee maker in our room. For those who need tea, the coffee maker is useless and the microwave a travesty.

We bought an electric kettle and we have that in our common room for anyone to heat water for their tea.

But what to do about rice, about actual hot, cooked food? (Leave rotis out of the equation entirely. This is not going to happen.)

Before coming here, I checked out how to make rice in the microwave. I have never owned or used a microwave so it was always going to be a challenge. But for the last two days, I've been thinking of spices, of oil, of soaking the rice, cooking times.

Yesterday was a beautiful day. It was warm but with a cooling breeze and the promise of a sharper bite in the days to come. There were pretty, puffy clouds in the sky and a green river to sit by. I lay down on a bench and read, looked at the clouds and had a brief nap.

There was so much contentment in that: in not having to worry about who will look at me while I'm pretending the entire outdoors is my own private domain. There was so much freedom in the ability take that nap under the patchwork clouds and sun.

Later that afternoon, after the first Prarie Lights readings featuring IWP writers, I felt restless. The day had to have a different end than an indifferently consumed meal at a pub. We got talking about cooking and a few of us decided to pick up some supplies and head back to my room, where I had a menu shaping in my head: pulau, cucumber raita and salad.

It wasn't that hard. Not having a cutting board slowed things up a bit, but we did it. There was no nimbu for the salad but we squeezed tomatoes. Erez made a mean dessert with berries, mascarpone and dark chocolate.

Here is the evidence.

Pulau, Raita, Salad
All the sinfulness!
And here's the river and the sky.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

A matter of perspective

I had to be at Shambaugh House for a meeting. I had a few minutes before I needed to go up so I read poems, looked out the window and quite out of the blue, decided to sketch all the lines and squares I was seeing. I'm the world's worst artist, and there wasn't much time, but later it occurred to me that it would be fun to go back and take a photgraph from the exact same spot and see what the two images looked like together.

So here they are. 

Shambaugh House, from the 2nd floor landing. (Hasty) pen sketch.

Shambaugh House, from the 2nd floor landing. 

Friday, August 30, 2013

RIP Seamus Heaney

Waking up to the news of Seamus Heaney's death. I still haven't absorbed it yet so until I do, here's an early poem.

The Peninsula

by Seamus Heaney

When you have nothing more to say, just drive
For a day all round the peninsula.
The sky is tall as over a runway,
The land without marks, so you will not arrive

But pass through, though always skirting landfall.
At dusk, horizons drink down sea and hill,
The ploughed field swallows the whitewashed gable
And you're in the dark again. Now recall

The glazed foreshore and silhouetted log,
That rock where breakers shredded into rags,
The leggy birds stilted on their own legs,
Islands riding themselves out into the fog,

And drive back home, still with nothing to say
Except that now you will uncode all landscapes
By this: things founded clean on their own shapes,
Water and ground in their extremity.

from Door Into the Dark, Faber & Faber, 1969.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Iowa: day 1

So I'm here, in Iowa City, with the river flowing right by the hotel where all of us are being put up. Everything begins tomorrow, so today we get to hang out, say hello to each other before we're swallowed up by our own schedules.

Yesterday, I arrived to a blessedly warm, balmy day. People were complaining that it was humid, but I don't know; even being in dry-as-bones Hyderabad, I didn't think it was humid like Madras is humid or Delhi in July is humid.

After I settled in, I walked along the river and the air smelled of grass and there were a couple of dead fish floating and bumping along the bank, but at that distance were odour-free. There were many impressions of those few hours I was awake but most of them too fleeting to mention; I really tried to stay awake until a decent time but I've decided 6pm is decent. Such blessed sleep!

I'm thinking I'll blog once a week or thereabouts, but good intentions sometimes never make the transition to proper posts. So let's see how that goes.

The news seems so far away, as it did when I was in Scotland. I can see the reporting about the rape of the journalist and I'm trying to understand why it feels the way it does: not far away, because it doesn't; but not so visceral. Maybe because I'm still - despite whatever I tell myself- still jetlagged.

In the meantime, my most urgent needs have to do with a supply of decent coffee in my room. 


Monday, August 19, 2013

CIty of Asylum Pittsburgh: Jazz Poetry Concert

I will be at this event on the 7th of September, reading with other awesome poets including *gasp* Joy Harjo.

Naturally, the excitement is uncontrollable.

On the off-chance that some of you live in Pittsburgh, or live close enough by and have the time and inclination to come, here's a poster of the event. I believe there will be live streaming; details can be had at the website.

In related news, I will be a resident at the IWP, Iowa from August end to mid-November. I'll try to blog through the time, but I'm really not sure how it will go. Needless to say, I am looking forward to every bit of my time there.

Don't - just don't - get me started on packing stories, though.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Subashini on Americanah

Subashini has written an essay on Adichie's Americanah on Pop Matters. I have been reading this piece for the last fifteen minutes, pausing after nearly every papargraph to re-read and savour it, to attempt to quote on twitter and failing (because Subashini's sentences don't allow quotation by number-of-characters, a thing I realise happens more and more with people writing long form: whether consciously or unconsciously, everyone is now writing sentences that fit into one or two tweets; it makes me unaccountably happy when I find someone who can't be quoted quite like that).

But that's what blogs are for: to keep large chunks of wonderful writing for reading later. So here:
Ifemelu is that rare thing: a woman who doesn’t hide that she’s quite secure in her own sense of attractiveness and worth. She knows she’s beautiful, but Adichie deftly shows how racism works to undermine even Ifemelu’s sense of confidence with all the banalities of the everyday comments and stares about her hair and what people take to be her projection of Africanness. When Ifemelu writes on her blog, and announces at a dinner party, that “the simplest solution to the problem of race in America” is “romantic love”, not the “kind of safe shallow love where the objective is that both people remain comfortable”, but “real deep romantic love, the kind that twists you and wrings you out and makes you breathe through the nostrils of your beloved”, Adichie brings the novel’s ruminations on race and desire to its fruition.

She leaves this radical notion of love open to interpretation and disagreement, and foregrounds it against Ifemelu’s awareness that while that some white American men might find her intelligent, funny, and beautiful, they don’t really see her, don’t allow themselves to see her, don’t desire her, because of how race has shaped and disciplined their sense of desire. Rather, race trains them to see only some as loveable, and it’s definitely not meant to be a woman who doesn’t look at all like a woman shaped by the ideals of white supremacy. As Blaine’s sister, Shan, remarked earlier—it’s a problem that not’s limited to white American men, and Adichie’s many readers around the world can probably bring their specific experiences with colourism to bear onto this notion of radical love across racial borders vs. sexual fetish and/or temporary this-will-do-for-now romance.

I have also had a vague hunch that I need to read this piece alongside Junot Diaz's Decolonial Love, though I'm not sure what half-understood connections I'm making in my head at this moment. If I know, I will let you know.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Reading promiscuously

I was visiting Rishi Valley over the weekend and was invited to speak at the Junior School assembly about anything I wanted to. I elected to talk about SFF, because I figured this was something that would bring together readers from the ages of 8-14 most happily.

Surprisingly enough, though they've read a lot of what's marketed as YA today, they really haven't read much SFF at all - or what my generation would call science fiction and/or fantasy. Not much Tolkien (the films, yes; the books, not really), no Asimov, Clarke, Bradbury. No Poe (I'm widening the category here to include all kinds of possibilities), no le Guin (not even Earthsea) - I could go on.

(And yet, nearly everyone had read Alice and quite a few had read The Phantom Tollbooth. This made me happy.)

At the end of the talk, the people who'd invited me to speak told me that the problem was that the kids read too much of this stuff and not enough of "real life" fiction.

"Really?" I thought. Because I thought I'd established that the kids had actually read almost nothing of SFF. It turns out that what they meant was that the kids are reading only the Riordans and the George RR Martins and the Amish Tripathis.

I didn't have the time to argue this properly. I was just a little surprised at the attitude, though god knows I shouldn't be any more. I was a little more concerned that my friends seemed to be falling on the side of carefully directed reading.

Me, I'm all for promiscuity in reading. I think children of whatever age should be able to pick any book off any shelf that seems attractive to them at the time without having some adult at their back telling them, 'Oh, this has bad language' or 'You won't understand this until you're older.'

I mean, yes, they may not understand something or may be shocked or delighted by the language; they may even be reading something out of purely prurient interest but what really shocks me is how adults can forget that they were exactly like those kids; and if they think they turned out okay, why would they believe these children won't?


If there's an objection to the category of fiction marketed as YA today, it is that it is too narrow, a mere cul de sac instead of even a street or a neighbourhood, much less the wider world. What these books do (like the adults I am sort of in lapsed dialogue with now) is distrust the intelligence of the children to understand complexity or to experience a world that is unavailable to them except through words.

I remain unconvinced that Stories About Real People will redress this lack in YA fiction. I read a lot of teen fiction, for instance - a 21st century take on the school story - and it's a sub-genre just like Mallory Towers or St. Clare's and no less bound by its own conventions that those books.

I also doubt that those children read only the kind of books the teachers seem to object to, but if that is indeed the case, the solution is surely not to discourage a certain kind of reading but to encourage another kind?

God knows, I read enormous quantities of rubbish growing up. All the Sidney Sheldons and Jeffrey Archers; books whose names I vaguely remember but whose authors I've forgotten (The Thorn Birds? Beyond the Blue Mountains?). Hey - my parents didn't even keep those Rugby Jokes out of reach. I could read absolutely anything I wanted and as far as I can tell they didn't allow themselves an opinion on whether it was 'good for me' or not.

They may not have thought of it that way, but what they encouraged was promiscuity in reading without thought to the moral or the lesson or the nutrient-value of the book in question. I wish schools would be as hands-off with the kids in their charge.

In celebration of which, this post:"May they always come for the unbuttoning and find that they stay past the remaking of the bed."

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

The Doctor is [expletive deleted]

So they've announced the 12th Doctor and I am trying to figure out how to explain to my son how much I love the news. Not that he loved Matt Smith or anything - for him The Doctor is David Tennant, though we both kind of adored Christopher Ecclestone and how much fun he had saying the words "Take me to your leader!"

The good news is that IT'S PETER CAPALDI!!!!

(The bad news is that it's still Moffat in charge. Couldn't they have retired him? I could barely watch beyond the first episode of part 2 of the last season).

So of course in certain sections of the internet there is glee at the thought of Capaldi playing The Doctor as Malcolm Tucker and it is a delicious, if NC17 rated, thought. I mean, just imagine how you get an inventively foul-mouthed man and a sonic screwdriver - where's the downside in that?

But hey - as with most things, you don't have to imagine it, because someone else has:

Didn't that used to be Glasson Minor? Hey, pissy biscuits, did you just blow up Glasson Minor? I loved that bloody planet.

Yes, Doctor. Look, sorry, there's a perfectly decent explanation for this. We all just sort of got a little bit carried away. You know how it is.

Well, as long as there's a decent explanation, that's good enough for me. Good seeing you all again.
The Doctor begins to walk back to the TARDIS, then stops and turns around.

Oh, wait a minute...

Clara's shoulders slump. This routine again.

Sorry, I've just realised. That wasn't actually a decent explanation at all, was it? That was barely an explanation at all. It was just a noise, really, wasn't it? It sounded like leaky cattle diarrhoea. Look at you all, standing there with your thumbs up your arses like the world's shittest collection of novelty dildos. I'm the Doctor now. Wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey shitey-bitey fucking fish fingers and custard and all that bollocks. And I'm expected to deal with this. You useless bunch of catastrophic fucking dismal CUN...

THE INCIDENTAL MUSIC suddenly swells.

Oh, nice try. Make the music louder. You're trying to drown me out, aren't you? I've seen this show before, I know how this works. Well, you listen to me, you epic fuck-up. I will unleash a hurricane of piss at you if I even hear so much as a stray kazoo fart from this point onwards.

The music stops, embarrassed with itself. Now The Doctor turns to face the camera.

But that's not really going to happen, is it?

(To be fair, Capaldi is a much better actor who, sadly, is going to be forever associated with either Tucker or Doctor Who and I feel a bit sad about that.)

Friday, August 02, 2013

Word Loss of the Day: Quotient

I have words of the day, I even have words of the quarter, but I have recently realised that I need a whole new category for what's happening to me.

You know when you say a word but all of a sudden it doesn't mean anything* and you say it and say it and word and meaning are just freefalling away from each other and refuse to be yoked by violence together?

Well today I said a word and I realised I didn't know what it meant. And that word is quotient.

 I know I can look at a dictionary - I actually did - but even in its purely mathematical sense, it seems like such an excessive word, you know? And when it comes to its use in IQ, or EQ or some other variation, it just a noise instead of a word.

So I'm sitting here today looking at this word and I know it's not a form of aphasia. It's as a husk of a word that I once didn't need to look at to know what it meant.

Every so often, I find words like this that I realise I've already lost and it's a little dismaying. Word loss is a somehow a matter of pride or vanity. I'm kind of wishing I could find some form of linguistic deep or leave-in conditioner that will repair damage and leave my vocabulary feeling nourished and well-cared-for.


*Somewhat like when I look in the mirror and the reflection makes no sense, because the person there can't be a [insert name here].

Monday, July 29, 2013

Announcement: 5th Srinivas Rayaprol Poetry Prize - Call for Entries

I had meant to post this earlier; my apologies to everyone who's come to the blog in recent days looking for announcements. Here it is in full:

Entries are invited from young poets in India writing in English for the fifth Srinivas Rayaprol Poetry Prize. 

The Prize was instituted by the Srinivas Rayaprol Literary Trust to recognize excellence in poetry written in English and is being administered jointly by the Department of English, University of Hyderabad.  The prize consisting of a cash award of Rs.10,000 and a citation will be presented at a literary event in Hyderabad in the month of October 2013.  The entries will be judged by a distinguished jury of poets and literary personalities.

Entries are invited from Indian citizens between 20-40 years and writing poetry in English.

Entries must include:

1.   Three (3) different, unpublished poems written by the applicant;
2.   Evidence of age; Scanned copy of passport/driver's license/pan card/voter id/aadhar
3.   Complete contact information (including phone numbers and email addresses).

Note: Please do not put your name on the poems to be submitted to the jury members.

Entries must reach:

Dr. Aparna Rayaprol
Convener, Srinivas Rayaprol Poetry Prize
Director, Study in India Program
University of Hyderabad, Hyderabad AP 500046

Deadline: August 31, 2013

Friday, July 19, 2013

Sundara Ramaswamy: No Longer At Ease

My essay on Sundara Ramaswamy appeared in Mint last week. All through the time I was reading Waves and Children, Women, Men, I made copious notes and wanted to include so much more than I was able to - even though it was rather a generous word count.

I wanted to quote entire passages from the the novel: Lacham play-acting an entire meal as head cook, conversations between people, observations made in passing. I wanted to talk about how Children, Women, Men is really historical fiction in the best way - in the detailing of a world that no longer exists but is so readily recognisable for someone of a particular age. Or the little nugget that SuRaa was derailed in the middle of writing the novel by a character who appears in it, who demands all his time so that he later becomes the protagonist of JJ: Some Jottings (Children, Women, Men was completed much later).

But alas, none of that was possible and I've done the best I could when I wanted to say much more than I could.


Sukanya said that Sridaran often mentioned the word ‘modern’. What an attractive word! Dreams and visions swirled around it. ‘However hard we try and think, our brains won’t catch the sense of it exactly, Ramani. We must go and live in London to understand what it means,’ said Sukanya.
       Children, Women, Men. Ch. 73.

Sundara Ramaswamy died in 2005, leaving behind him a body of work that included three novels, several short stories, some poems (written under the pen name ‘Pasuvayya’) and translations into Tamil of the work of Malayalam writer Takazhi Sivasankara Pillai. He also published and edited the Tamil literary journal Kalachuvadu that has carried the works of new and established writers over the years.

Su Raa, as he is popularly known, was greatly influenced by the work of the writer Pudumaipittan (whose collected works the Kalachuvadu Trusts edited and published in 2000). His early stories, such as ‘Heifer’ and ‘Sita Brand Soap Nut Powder’ had the kind of direct language and sharp observations about people and society that Pudumaipittan and other progressive writers of the early 20th century thought necessary, in order to resuscitate Tamil literature from its excessive formality.

In time, Su Raa, as he was popularly known, distanced himself from the writers of the left and began to publish in some of the many little magazines that had sprung up in Tamil Nadu. The two books under review here give the reader a flavour of the range of Su Raa’s work: Waves is a selection of his stories and Children, Women, Men is his last published novel (1998).

Su Raa stories were written in two distinct phases: pre-1966 and after 1973. In her Introduction, Lakshmi Holmström, who has translated some of these stories, mentions this gap of six years in Su Raa’s story writing, but does not say why he wrote no stories in these years, what other writing those years were occupied with and why his stories are so remarkably different in the years after ’73.

In the absence of biographical context, it is up to the reader to plunge into the stories and experience them without the filter of literary exposition. This is not at all a bad thing: the difference in style and content between stories such as ‘Heifer’, ‘Sita Brand Soapnut Powder’ and ‘Prasadam’ on the one hand and ‘Essences’, ‘The Hollow’ and ‘Waves’ on the other, are self-evident. The earlier stories are sharply delineated studies of character and social situations, written with a characteristic humour and fondness for the people they represent. The later stories, on the other hand, are more surreal, allusive and dream-like. They often end abruptly and far away from they seemed to be headed. These stories are narratives of states of mind that one comprehends instantly and entirely but has to later reach to understand.

In Children, Women, Men, several characters experience a sense of unease and a loss of identity in the rapidly changing social milieu of pre-Independence Kottayam. SRS, the patriarch of the main family in the novel, refuses to attend the death anniversary – the ‘thivasam’ – of his father, seeing it as meaningless ritual. Other characters rebel in their own particular ways: Chellappa urges the widowed Anandam to come away with him; Sridaran wants to marry Valli, without regard to caste or generational taboos; Savitri is corrosively honest in her periods of ‘mental illness’; Balu, SRS’s son, is unable to rebel and develops a kind of fear that is best described by the German word angst.

Valli looks at her face in a cracked mirror and at once the sense of divided self that everyone experiences in their own ways is made literal. Such a dislocation is not just symbolic but also linguistic. Virudan Sankunni the postman says, ‘Once you learnt English, you never understood other people’s misfortunes.’ Balu, hiding in the store room, later watches Valli and Ramani return from their convent school and thinks, ‘They were laughing English laughter.’

None of these characters need to live in London to experience what modernity brings in its wake: as in post-WWI Europe, so in Travancore State in 1937-39.

The narrator of the short story ‘Crows’ wants desperately to belong to the world of crows:

Whenever I told the older crows, ‘I am a poet as well,’ they looked at me with a little smile. It seemed to me that they said, ‘That is really not very important to us.’ It struck me as perfectly fair that as long as I took no notice of the poetry of their world, they were at liberty to ignore the poetry of mine.

Bridging the language barrier often seems as arduous a task as understanding another species without the benefit of a common language or mode of thought. Su Raa was trilingual: in addition to English, he read and spoke Malayalam with ease and learnt to read and write Tamil when he was young (though, as a Tamil Brahmin he always spoke it). In his second novel, JJ: Some Jottings (Crea-A, 1981. Trans. A.R.Venkatachalapathy, Katha, 2004), Su Raa uses the life of a fictional writer, JJ, to write a post-modern satire of Tamil and Malayalam literary movements and debates. A character in JJ says,We speak of Kafka. Of Simone de Beauvoir. Of Borges. But we do not know of Kuttikrishna Marar. We do not know of Gopalakrishna Adiga. How's that?

It is a familiar complaint and not an unjustified one – it is true that a generation that is most comfortable speaking English, though it has not completely lost its ability to speak or write another Indian language, tends to be more familiar with writers from the west rather than writers of other Indian languages. Books such as Waves and Children, Women, Men help in tilting the scale towards a literature that ought to be more familiar than it is. Perhaps the riches these translations promise can even be an inducement to readers to begin reading in languages other than English.